Last updated on October 9th, 2023 at 04:31 pm
Each Memorial Day, Veterans in uniforms, Catholic priests, and those who have lost their loved ones gather together at a cemetery chapel high atop a graveyard hill above where I live. We collectively share our grief and reverence in honoring those who left us too soon.
An array of American flags gracefully dance together like a chorus line. They remind us by their sheer number how many gave their lives so we can live the way we live. There are always a few fresh graves–calling to mind the intense heartache and despair we felt when we first buried our loved ones under mounds of dirt and fresh flowers.
We stand shoulder-to-shoulder to honor the dead in quiet prayer for the love they left us missing and the tears we’ve shed.
I spread flowers on my father’s grave while remembering the man who told me I was intelligent and capable of doing anything.
I remember how he smelled after a fresh shave–a combination of Ivory bar soap and a splash of Aqua Velva aftershave. I remember his wide grin full of perfect teeth and his electric blue eyes that sparkled when he let out his bellowing laugh. I remember the different hair combs he carried in his pocket because he liked keeping his hair well-groomed. I remember how his weathered hands were as big as the state of Montana.
His veterans’ gravestone reminds me that my father served in the Korean War. I remember how he loved to share his favorite war story about the only combat he ever saw was when his Army unit accidentally blew up the latrine at base camp. He didn’t lose any friends in his squad. They all returned safely home to their families.
I think about when my mother first met my dad. He asked Mom to dance at a nightclub where my mother’s best friend was the band leader. At the time, she was engaged to marry someone else. It’s hard for me to picture my parents in a nightclub, checking each other out across a crowded room. Dad in his uniform, mom in a 1950s-style gown.
My dad was a persuasive man. My mother married him several months later instead of her fiance.
I remember how my father worked up to death’s door to support our suburban life. Besides being a truck driver, my father had a different dream but didn’t want to take risks where his family was concerned. He thought,
“What is my dream compared to what my family needs?”
He made good money. We had excellent health insurance. We had a beautiful home. I had a closet full of clothes. I took ballet lessons. We traveled every summer. He was happy if we were pleased; that mattered most to him. He wasn’t about to mess with the security of the life he was proud to provide.
I was a teenager when my mother sat my brother and me down to say that our father had Esophageal cancer. My dad was in his late 40s–still a young man. I didn’t understand what a cancer diagnosis meant or how serious the situation could become.
Cancer crawled into bed with our family, reached up, and ripped out our hearts in little pieces. Cancer laid waste to our dreamy suburban life. It twisted through his body, breaking down a strong and vibrant man, killing Dad slowly from the inside out.
He died in the summer of my 18th birthday, just after I had graduated from high school. He was 49-years-old.
I spent the years following his death ignoring my writer’s dreams, suppressing my ideas, and killing the voice within that nagged me to make different choices. It was as if I needed to prolong the suffering I had endured at the end of my father’s life and spread it over mine.
I wouldn’t say I liked college. I hated my life. I was a mess. I lost sight of what I originally wanted to be–something people constantly told me I was good at: writing.
I was scared. I was scared to death. I felt like a boat in a storm without a sail or anchor, drifting aimlessly across a scary landscape I didn’t understand. I felt ill-equipped with no one to turn to for help. My mother remarried. My brother moved in with his girlfriend and got married. All I knew was fear. What was going to happen to me?
I went from being a high school girl with a promising career dream and a journalism teacher who was sure I’d be writing for some big magazine to the girl looking for the next college party filled with boys and alcohol. I burned my journal, quit my journalism class, and changed my college major.
I went on to spend ten years working in retail and becoming a wedding consultant, only to one day wake up and look around at the life I’d built with my handsome and well-off college boyfriend. I hated it. I was miserably unhappy. I was still afraid—the life I’d built made me feel alone and scared all of the time. I told no one. I then did something everyone thought was crazy: I walked out of my supposedly secure but lonely-scary life. I left all of my belongings behind (including my college boyfriend), except for a small bag of clothes. I quit the wedding consultant job I hated. I begged my mother and stepfather to let me stay with them for a few months while I figured things out. For a brief moment, I thought I would have to live in my car. My stepfather agreed to let me stay and gave me five months to “get it together.”
I started my life over at the age of 28.
I want to tell you that I returned to my writer’s dream but didn’t.
Underneath my emotional scars was this insatiable need to find security–something to drown my never-ending feelings of loneliness and fear. Journalism didn’t seem secure because writing to me was wrapped up in memories of my dad and my life before he died. I certainly wasn’t going there. I wanted to find a career that offered me stability while not being too dull–as long as it wasn’t writing! It’s amazing how low we set the bar when we’re emotionally wounded. I wanted to protect myself from anything terrible happening again.
Like that’s reality.
I ended up successfully studying real estate. I landed a great job in banking in the San Francisco Financial District. My stepfather was so proud. My new career introduced me to new technology, and I became one of the early female adapters to embrace a home computer and get on the Internet. I got married. I had a son. We lived in this cute little house in the country with a dog, two lazy cats, and one noisy mockingbird. I studied computer science. I thought I was happy. I was (and still am) wild for our son, but something wasn’t right. Deep inside, I was still lonely and afraid.
Once again, I wanted to run.
One rainy day, just like I had done with my college boyfriend, I ran away from my marriage–this time with our son on my hip. I didn’t know what I was searching for, and it turns out that leaving a marriage is quite difficult. My heart was once again broken into pieces. I was right back in the same old emotional place.
Since I dearly love my son, I couldn’t allow myself to remain an emotional mess. For the first time in my life, I entered therapy: real therapy and lots of it. Finally, 20 years after my father’s death, I began to process my fear. As we stripped away the layers of pain protecting my heart, a yearning began to unfold.
I wanted to pick up my life where it veered left at age 18, repair the broken pieces, and begin anew.
At this same time, a tech buddy told me about a new thing called “blogging,” and he thought I would be good at it. I set up my first blog on AOL Journals. With just a few clicks of a keyboard, I was writing again. Words poured out of me. I finally began to share my pain from losing my dad. I could feel the last of my fear being pulled out of me through the keyboard. I felt capable and confident. Since then, I’ve launched numerous websites and blogs, published a small book, written a lot of online content for websites, worked with publishing companies, and written for print magazines with my very own byline.
It’s been a long way back to my original dream, but I’ve never been happier.
As I write this for Memorial Day, I realize I am now older than my dad when he died. I’ve been lucky to get a second chance at my original dream. I know it’s never too late to start over and resurrect your life. Don’t feel bad if you’ve messed up, too. So what if you got lost? You’ve done the best you could–just like me–and it is nothing to be ashamed of. You are alive. You are breathing.
You can still dream big dreams. You can still change your life, even when you are scared to death.
Each year, I think about this while cutting roses from my garden before driving my mother to the cemetery chapel up the hill to spend a few hours with the other survivors of love lost.
But all is not lost if we still have our dreams.
(Since first writing this story for 8WomenDream, I have lost my mother after her brave four-year battle with dementia, followed by my son’s father and good friend, TC, to a sudden stroke. In their honor, I have continued to excel at my writing career, even though I miss them every day.)
Catherine Hughes is the editor and founder of 8WomenDream. She’s also a magazine columnist, content creator, blogger, published author, and former award-winning mom blogger. Catherine collaborates with companies to craft engaging web content and social media narratives. Her work, highlighting stories of the resilience and success of Northern California residents, appears in several print magazines. Outside of work, she treasures motherhood, her close friendships, rugby, and animals.
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